The life and cars of Richard “The Old Man” Harrison
“Pawn Stars” is an unlikely television hit, and it’s also one of the most popular shows on cable. Only MTV’s “Jersey Shore” had more viewers last year. It’s so popular, in fact, that cable channel History, the network that carries it, has already spun off two shows from it — “American Restorations” and “Cajun Pawn Stars.” And in its wake, plenty of copycat pawn-based shows have begun to spring up on other cable outlets, too.
Shot on location in Las Vegas at the World Famous Gold and Silver Pawn Shop on Las Vegas Boulevard, the show revolves around three family members and one employee. Since it’s Vegas, think of a deck of cards. Austin “Chumlee” Russell — the employee — is the Joker. Corey “Big Hoss” Harrison, the third generation of the family in the pawn business, is heir to the King, and his card would be the Jack. Corey’s dad, Rick Harrison, is the King. But the Ace, in fact the man who holds all the aces in the business, is Rick’s dad, 72-year-old Richard Harrison — a.k.a. the Old Man. It’s a moniker he’s held since the tender age of 38.
The Old Man is gruff, colorful and always at the ready with an observation or a quip. And he’s an unlikely television celebrity. “I have to give my son credit,” he says. “He kept hammering on getting the show. Rick pitched it for four years. They said no one wanted to watch a show about four fat guys running a pawn shop. Well, we proved them wrong. Our show is on in 150 countries. They even have different names for the shows. I went online and saw it once, there I was speaking Japanese, Chinese.”
The shop buys about 12 to 15 cars a year, though not all of them make it onto the show. And like his co-stars, the Old Man is a car guy. He currently owns a 1963 Chrysler Imperial four door, a 1966 Imperial convertible, a 1962 Cadillac Sedan deVille, a 1957 Chevrolet 150, a 1955 Ford F100 pickup and a 1937 Oldsmobile.
Quite clearly, the Old Man likes ’em big and American. “I guess my favorite is my ’62 Cadillac,” he says. He’s owned the car for 18 years. “The ’62 Caddy, the ’63 and ’66 Imperials, they’re land yachts. They’ve got the turning radius of the Enterprise.” The Old Man should know; he spent his first career in the U.S. Navy.
“I kicked around the Navy 21 years and then left September 1, 1979,” he says. “I was always what I call a street hustler. I’d go to pawn shops and secondhand stores. I was always buying or selling. I was always looking for a bargain.” While he was stationed in San Diego in the early 1960s, he bought several cars at government auctions. “I had a friend who lived in Tijuana and I used to buy a lot of station wagons and take them down to Tijuana. They became taxi cabs.”
As you might expect from a man who successfully buys and sells other people’s treasures, the Old Man rarely gets attached to his wares. “I’m in the secondhand business,” he says. “I can’t fall in love with it or it don’t work.“ But that doesn’t mean he has no sense of nostalgia for his own possessions — especially his cars. “My first car when I was 16 was a 1950 Plymouth four-door ex-Baltimore taxi cab. It had been run through hell.” From there he moved on to a gunmetal gray over pink 1951 Ford Victoria, and he still has his sights set on finding another. “They’re rare,” he says. “Finding a ’51 Vic is very, very, hard.”
Cars by the Hundreds
He’s always been a Mopar man, however, and has owned several: a 1957 Plymouth station wagon, a ’64 Dodge Dart wagon, a ’65 Barracuda and a ’70 Road Runner. “I never owned a DeSoto though. Some of the 1950s DeSotos are gorgeous.”
The Old Man is no keeper of garage queens, and he usually takes one or two of his cars out on the weekends, even for quick trips to the grocery store. “I try to get them cranked up once a week, once every 10 days.” If he has a gripe — and if you’ve watched the show, you know the Old Man has gripes — it has to do with the look of today’s cars. “When I was five, six, seven, you could look at a car and tell one car from another. But they all look the same now. It’s hard to tell the difference between the Cadillac and the Chevrolet today. Don’t get me wrong, the technology they have in the cars today is phenomenal, but they ought to do something about the style. To me the last American car that had any style was the Plymouth Prowler. That’s one car I’m gonna own one of these days.”
By his own count, the Old Man has bought and sold several hundred cars over the years. “The one that I was happiest to get rid of was my ’73 Cadillac. It was a nightmare from the word go.” In San Diego, he once missed out on a car advertised as a 1954 Jaguar Sedan. “I go up to look at it,” he says, “but it had sold five minutes earlier for $800. And it wasn’t a sedan — it was an XK 120.”
Thanks to the success of the show, the Old Man can afford more than he used to. His 1957 Chevy 150 is completely customized, with an LS1 V-8. The car itself is well known; it’s the same ’57 Chevy that Rick surprised his dad with for his 70th birthday during an episode of “Pawn Stars.” “I had no idea whatsoever,” says the Old Man. “It just shocked the hell out of me. I really like the car and it’s a head turner. I’m very careful with it when I drive it. It’s extremely fast.”
His cars are a mix between completely stock and mild custom. Both Imperials, for example, “are stock from the word go.” The ’62 Cadillac has a Buick front end so the Old Man could fit it with disc brakes. And his ’55 Ford pickup has a Corvette engine in it. “That’s a squirrelly little bastard,” he says. “It’ll take you where you want to go in real time.”
Though retired from the Navy, the Old Man has no plans to leave the pawn business. “I enjoy what I do,” he says. “Retirement is overrated. I have friends who retired, and a lot of them have admitted that they’re not happy with it. People have asked me many times, ‘Well, Richard, when are you going to retire?’ I tell them that the day I walk through that door and it isn’t fun, that’s when I’ll quit.”
Spend time with the Old Man at his pawn shop and you’ll see that behind the gruff exterior is a guy who enjoys his work, enjoys his cars and, despite what you might have seen on the small screen, enjoys working with his family. He’s got his own hit reality show and a garage full of all the cars he loves. So what’s next for the Old Man? It’s simple, he says. “After I figure out my f#@%ing taxes, I’ll start looking for a Plymouth Prowler.”